Adobe AIR set to take flight at Nasdaq, charity

Runtime promises to let companies extend rich Internet applications to desktop

Adobe Systems Inc. is expected to release its Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) next month, ending the wait of organizations such as Nasdaq Stock Market Inc. and American Cancer Society Inc. for a way to tap the best attributes of a browser but without the browser -- to take some of their rich Internet applications to the desktop.

The new AIR technology from San Jose-based Adobe is among several emerging products that promise to let companies run Web applications built using Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) tools on desktop systems. Analysts and users are expecting AIR to ship next month. Adobe has only said it will ship in early 2008.

Nasdaq and the American Cancer Society are among several large organizations eyeing the Adobe runtime as a way to bridge the traditional gap between Web and desktop applications.

Claude Courbois, associate vice president of data product development at Nasdaq, said that he has long been searching for tools to help its analysts and brokerage customers comply with stringent U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules much faster.

For example, Courbois noted that traditional development technology can't build a tool that can quickly re-create market conditions to prove to customers that they received the best price available for a stock, as one SEC rule requires.

Today, Nasdaq analysts spend hours using statistical software from SAS Institute Inc. on the desktop to recreate market conditions when necessary. After gaining access to a beta version of the AIR runtime this summer, the New York-based stock exchange swiftly built a single application that can simultaneously access Web and desktop data, Courbois said.

The so-called Nasdaq Market Replay rich Internet application, built using Adobe's Flex development tool set, can provide a replay of the quotes at the time of a trade -- and associated prices on different markets -- in seconds, Courbois said.

The software runs on the desktop, relieving servers of a good deal of data-intensive processing, he noted. "We saw the ability to process the data halfway on our servers and have it in as small a package as possible. Then when someone requires a replay of the market, we send a small packet of data to desktop," he said.

"The application does the final 10 yards of work to prepare the replay of what was going on at that time. The amount of data it takes to get to this level of detail is beyond what you could do on a normal Web application," he added.

The new Nasdaq application is expected to begin rolling out to in-house analysts and client brokerages next month, coinciding with the expected release of AIR 1.0, he added.

Adobe described AIR as a runtime environment for building rich Internet applications in Adobe Flash, HTML and AJAX. The package includes the Safari WebKit browser engine, along with application programming interfaces to support desktop features such as native drag and drop and network awareness, Adobe said.

In addition to Adobe, Microsoft Corp. and Mozilla Corp. are also maneuvering to gain a foothold in providing tools to help companies build and run next-generation rich Internet applications that run on the Web and desktop systems.

For example, Microsoft has come out with an initial version of Silverlight, a plug-in that supports multiple browsers and operating systems and that is aimed at providing Web applications with desktop-based animation, interactive features and video.

In addition, Mozilla Labs, the research arm of Mountain View, Calif.-based Mozilla, in October disclosed that its Prism software, now under development, will let Web users strip a Web application from the browser and use it as a traditional desktop program.

The new technologies aim to enable Web developers to build desktop applications, significantly cutting the need for expensive programming talent.

"You don't have to be a C++ programmer to build a desktop application any more," noted Mike Downey,  Adobe's group manager for evangelism in its platform unit. "[Using AIR] should be a fairly transparent experience for anyone already doing AJAX development."

That was a big selling point for Adam Pellegrini, strategic director of online at the American Cancer Society, who called on his staff to prepare to use AIR immediately after Adobe announced the public alpha release early last year. The organization built its first AIR application almost immediately, he noted.

"[AIR] reduces one step from the design process, which completely accelerates your product life cycle," Pellegrini said. "If you have a Flash programmer on staff, they can hit the ground on Day One and create an application."

Since the Atlanta-based charity began working with a beta version of the technology last spring, developers have also created an application that integrates Google Maps with some desktop Web services, allowing users to find the location of cancer treatment resources by entering a ZIP code.

Another new Cancer Society application allows users to enter demographic information and receive suggestions about scheduling tests such as a mammogram, he said. The group hopes that providing such reminders on desktop systems will be more effective in prompting users about their treatment needs than forcing them to frequently visit a Web site, Pellegrini added.

In addition, the group is using Flex to create a AIR-based portal that will allow physicians to access the Cancer Society's information over the Web and then use the data offline, he said.

Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., predicted that AIR will capture the interest of many organizations, especially those running aging client/server applications built using fourth-generation languages or Microsoft's Visual Basic tool set. AIR can be used to re-create such software as Web-desktop applications, he added.

"In those sorts of situations, AIR is a very nice fit, to take what is working today and [updating] it," Hammond said. "There are a lot of aging applications out there that have a richer user experience than what traditional Web applications have had up to this point."

Hammond also predicted that the browser will likely continue to be the preferred application-delivery vehicle at some sites because of AIR's dependence on Adobe's Flash Player. He also noted that other sites may not give users permission to use AIR in some cases because it could pose some security problems. "This stuff really hasn't been tried before," he said.

"Developers might think they are doing validation on the client so they won't have to do validation on the server, but you have to do it in both places," Hammond said. "You do it on the server because you assume any client is untrustworthy."

Paul Giurata, managing partner of Catalyst Resources, a San Mateo, Calif.-based services firm, said that most of his clients are moving away from the desktop altogether in favor of hosted systems. Catalyst Resources builds user interfaces and AJAX applications for its customers.

"The trend we have seen is almost all people developing new software applications are moving toward the software-as-a-service model," he said. "Over 80% of [our clients] have said they don't want to have to distribute software."

But some companies using hosted development offerings could use AIR nevertheless. For example, Coghead Inc., a provider of hosted development tools in Redwood City, Calif., announced this month that it had rebuilt its technology in Flex, Adobe's AJAX development tool set, in part to prepare itself to embrace AIR.

"Most people probably will be attracted to AIR because they'll have a better experience: It will run faster, feel more lightweight and give them the impression that the Web application will behave more like their desktop apps," said Paul McNamara, Coghead's CEO.

Indeed, Paul Fu, vice president of corporate development and CIO of Taiwan-based freight and logistics company Morrison Express Corp., said his users have been asking for the type of offline synchronization that AIR will provide. Morrison tapped Coghead to build its hosted CRM tool, Fu added.

"[Offline synchronization] would be very big for us," he said. "Having access to your data in an offline capability would be a huge boon to us. Sales representatives are not always near a computer, and [online access] doesn't help you when you are on an airplane."

Dana Gardner, an analyst at research firm Interarbor Solutions LLC in Gilford N.H., said that the interest in AIR-type tools by software-as-a-service providers is a good indication that enterprises will take notice of the technology.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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